Friday, August 12, 2005

The Italian Garden of Fort Ord

Dylan wanted to watch “Walking with Dinosaurs,” so he put the DVD in the player, then sat on my lap. I told him, “I love you, Punkin’.” I few minutes later, I told him again. “Daddy, you say ‘I love you’ too much.” I laughed, a surprised laugh. “Why do you say that?” I asked. “Because I’m five years old now. I’m a bigger boy.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll try not to say it so often.” “But Daddy, be sure to say it before I go to sleep.” I chuckled. “Okay, it’s a deal.”


I usually have a good memory for details, and yet, I can't remember the man's name, or the name of his establishment.

It was 1976. I'd just graduated from Army flight school in Alabama. I was shocked when I learned that I'd secured my dream assignment after graduation: Fort Ord, California. Five hours from home.

My dad had been stationed at Fort Ord during the Korean War. He never saw overseas duty. In basic training, his company commander noted that he had talent as a boxer. So, after finishing basic, he was given an assignment as basic training cadre, and joined the base boxing team. He fought in several bouts, undefeated, until he faced a man by the name of Zora Folley. Folley knocked Dad down three times in the first round. (“I didn’t even see half of his punches coming,” Dad related.) His enthusiasm for boxing cooled after his encounter with Mr. Folley. (Folley went on to a rather lengthy professional career after leaving the Army, and had the distinction of being the last man to fight Muhammad Ali before Ali’s three-year ban from boxing commenced.) Leaving the boxing team meant orders for Korea. However, Dad contracted rheumatic fever before shipping out, and nearly died after having an allergic reaction to penicillin. The Army gave him two options after his recovery: he could get out of the Army with a medical discharge, or he could complete his stint in a non-strenuous job such as a clerk or a cook. Bitterly disappointed that he wouldn’t see action in Korea--he considered it a patriotic duty--he nevertheless chose to remain in the Army and become a cook.

I sat at the kitchen table with my dad, drinking coffee. Dad could be hard to read, but there was no mistaking the wistful look that came over his face. "There was a pizza place outside of the post, a couple of miles down from the town of Marina," he began. "It was the first place that I ever ate a pizza. The guy who owned it was old even then. He'd come from Italy to the U.S. in the twenties, and had a son serving the Army in Korea. Man, we sure had some good times out in his garden." He went on to tell me about some of his beer drinking buddies who would meet him at the pizza place. "Sometimes I'd go there when it was quiet, and talk to the old man. His kids didn't have much to do with him; I think he was kind of lonely."

A couple of weeks after arriving at Fort Ord, I decided to look for Dad's pizza place. I drove down a road bordering the military post, and sure enough, there was the place my dad had told me about, set back from the road a good bit. I drove up the driveway, and saw there were no other cars in the dirt parking lot. I walked in, and at first thought that perhaps the owner had forgotten to put up the "closed" sign. There was nobody there, or so it seemed. But then, I heard coughing from the back room, and an elderly man walked out to the counter and asked, "What can I do for you?" I ordered a pizza and a beer. When the man set the beer in front of me on the counter, I said, "You know, my dad came to your place during Korea. He said it was the first pizza he ever had." The man looked at me strangely. What was that expression? Sadness? Bitterness? Resentment? "I had to turn away customers in those days," he said. "The soldiers like your father loved to eat my pizza and drink beer in my garden. The soldiers don’t come any more. They like Shakey’s and Round Table.” He paused, and looked far away for a moment. Then he came back. “It’s for the best. My kids don’t want the place anyway."

I sipped my beer and skimmed a newspaper, hoping to talk to the man, but he didn’t seem open to conversation. When I saw him take my pizza out of the oven, I walked to the counter to pick it up, and he made eye contact. Sheepishly, I asked, “Do you remember my dad? He was a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. His name was Ken.” An expression came over his face, an expression I hoped was a measure of recognition. He opened his mouth to say something, but then his expression hardened, and he said, “I told you there were lots of soldiers that came here. My memory isn’t so good these days.” He turned from the counter, and toward his back room. He stopped. He turned back toward me, and looked as if he had something to say. Then he snorted, waved his hand dismissively, and retired to the back.

I felt a strong and surprising disappointment. But really, what did I expect to hear from the man?

I picked up my pizza, and began moving back to my table, but then I remembered the outside garden. I walked to a side door leading outside. It was stuck; I had to put down my pizza and shove against it to get it open. I stood there, mouth agape, looking at the hanging garden. It was so much like I’d envisioned it, based on my dad’s stories, that it was downright spooky. Unlike the rest of the establishment, it had been lovingly maintained. I retrieved my pizza and beer, had a seat at one of the picnic tables, and imagined my dad and his buddies, drinking beer and joking, my dad the center of attention. I could almost feel my dad’s presence.

The old man's voice startled me out of my reverie. “You need anything else? I don’t feel too good, gonna close early.” I told him no, drained the last of my beer, and picked up my half-eaten pizza. Perhaps it would make a better story I told you that I was amazed at how good the pizza had been. The truth was that I’d had better frozen pizzas from the supermarket. Come to think of it, my dad had told me that it was the first pizza he’d ever had. He’d never mentioned whether he liked it. He’d liked the Italian garden, though. Although my dad wasn't one to wear his heart on his sleeve, it was plain that the pizza place had been a special place for him.

I turned to leave, then stopped at the door. I looked back, and imagined my dad standing there, holding court and laughing. He looked so young and carefree, and so hopeful, as if he could conquer the world single-handedly. The pain of being raised with an unloving mother and abusive father was nowhere in evidence. He was the star of that night’s show.

“I love you Dad,” I whispered. I walked out, got in my car, and drove away.

I never went back to the old pizza place.

My dad died in 1991. I never actually said “I love you” to his face. We didn’t do that.

But that's okay. I tell him now.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Kauai on the Mississippi

A couple of days ago, I was taking an evening walk along the levy of the Mississippi River. It had been a hot day, even for Louisiana in the summer, so I’d waited until the sun had almost set to begin. I was listening to music on a set of earbuds, lost in the rhythm of my pace, when a cool rain surprised me.

Usually, when rain begins in south Louisiana in July, the rumble of thunder precedes its arrival. I turned the music down, and looked about. I still heard no thunder, and the cloud didn’t look like the towering cumulus one associates with lightning. It looked, actually, like the sort of cloud that brings a benign tropical shower. The rain felt gentle, cool, embracing. It felt like somewhere else.

In May, Rhonda, Dylan and I went to Kauai. (Thank goodness for all of those frequent flyer miles I've racked up "going to work.") It was our last chance to take a vacation independent of school year considerations, since Dylan starts kindergarten this year. Rhonda and I had a great time watching Dylan soak in the experience; he loved the beaches, the trail walks, and playing with local kids in the playgrounds.

One day, Rhonda had gone to buy a gift for her sister, and Dylan and I were feeding the fish at Lydgate State Park. (It’s the only place left on Kauai where feeding the fish is not discouraged.) We decided to walk up to the snack bar for lunch, and it suddenly darkened. A gentle rain began to fall as we walked, and Dylan asked me to carry him. The rain was cool, but not cold. It felt like little kisses against our bodies. Dylan giggled, then wrapped his arms around my neck and hugged me, nearly cutting my breath off. I choked a little, then laughed. “Sorry, Daddy,” Dylan said. “Punkin’, you’re getting strong,” I said. “I know,” he replied. He hugged me again, more gently, and I hugged him back.

I walked along the levy, with the Mississippi River to my left. My little boy, physically, was over two thousand miles away. But when I shut my eyes, with the gentle rain touching my skin, I could feel him hug my neck, and I could hear him giggle.

When I opened my eyes, he wasn’t there. I could still feel him, though.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

First Solo

I think about being in my teens and twenties, and listening to older people. Now, I’ve usually been a good listener, but often, my mind’s eye would roll a bit as I once again heard a friend or acquaintance talk about the passing of time.

“Enjoy this time, it’ll be gone before you know it.”

“I can’t believe I’m fifty. Sometimes I still feel like I should be in college.”

“I’m sixty years old, but it seems just yesterday I was your age.”

I’d listen, attentively, but it all seemed, well, less than profound, and maybe, even a bit trite. Everyone gets older, right? What’s so profound about that?

But now that I’m closing on my forty-ninth birthday, those statements don’t seem so trite at all.

The other day, while going through boxes in the garage, I happened upon my solo certificate from Army flight school. It isn’t an official military document; rather, the civilian contractor who provided the Army’s primary flight training handed it out. It’s kind of funny: It features an illustration of a daddy eagle dropping a panic-stricken younger eagle out of the nest. On the bottom, it’s signed by one Charles White, the daddy eagle who kicked me out of one particular nest.


May 7, 1975, Fort Rucker, Alabama. I was an eighteen year-old Warrant Officer Candidate, a helicopter pilot in training. The Army contracted its primary helicopter flight training to a civilian company, and my instructor, Mr. White, was a retired Army pilot. He was a great guy, patient, very capable as an instructor, and seemingly, a natural pilot.

I wasn’t a weak student, but neither was I a hot shot. In fact, I was strikingly average. My training period that day had started out badly: I’d botched a practice autorotation (sort of the helicopter equivalent of an engine-out glide to the ground) right off.

I completed two more autorotations, with Mr. White ready to pounce on the controls if needed. There was no need. They were much better than the first, and I felt a renewed sense of confidence. “Okay, let’s see a normal approach,” said my veteran instructor. I took off, and entered the traffic pattern again. When I finished the approach, he said, “Hey, that wasn’t bad. You’ve really come along on that maneuver over the last couple of days. Let’s see a hovering autorotation.”

Hovering autorotations, which simulate an engine failure at a hover, had been my strongest maneuver. Even on my bad days, I could do them well. “Good job,” said Mr. White. “Hover over to the ramp close to the ops building.” “What’s up?” I thought to myself. I set the helicopter down on the ramp, and then looked to Mr. White for an explanation. Instead of offering one, he got out of the aircraft. I assumed he must have needed to use the restroom. He secured his seat belt and shoulder harness, and before taking off his flight helmet, keyed the mike and said, “Okay: make three traffic patterns, then hover back here to pick me up. If you have any trouble, I’ll be in the control tower monitoring the radio.”

I watched him walk away. WHAT?! Surely he couldn’t be serious! Solo the helicopter, NOW? I keyed the mike, intending only to talk to myself on the intercom, and blurted, “Oh sh*t! I’M NOT READY!”

“Say I.D.,” transmitted the control tower operator, sternly. Oh, geez, I’d squeezed the mike button too hard and transmitted over the tower frequency! (It wasn't approved procedure to say "sh*t on the radio.)

So, without mentioning my aircraft I.D., I simply transmitted, “disregard.” The tower came back with a curt, “roger.” Whew.

One crisis averted, I felt overwhelmed with all of the items to remember just to come to a hover, never mind flying three traffic patterns. I heard my dad’s voice in my head: “Don’t sit there and think about it, just do it.” I increased the RPM to flying speed, did a quick pre-takeoff check, called the tower for clearance, and came to a hover.

At first, I wobbled around a bit, but quickly steadied out. “I might just survive this after all,” I thought to myself. I hovered out to the takeoff lane--sort of a mini runway--lowered the nose, and took off. I wobbled about once more during climb out, but steadied out again; I turned on crosswind, and felt myself grinning. I was doing it! I was flying a helicopter, by myself! I turned on the downwind leg, and stopped my climb at 1000 feet. Geez, this was going so smoothly. Then I looked at where Mr. White had been sitting. At an empty seat. At empty space. At sky where my instructor should have been.

“If I screw up, there’s no one here to save me.” I felt that sentiment more than thought it. I took a couple of deep breaths, then keyed the radio mike to transmit. “Allen Tower, Four-eight Foxtrot reporting downwind abeam.” There. I least I managed to get that radio call off without sounding like Mickey Mouse. “Four-eight Foxtrot, number three for landing, report turning final,” replied the tower.

I looked back at Mr. White’s empty seat. I still felt a stab of fear, but it seemed more contained. Actually, I noted, I was doing a pretty good job of holding my airspeed and altitude. Hey, maybe I was ready to solo after all! The tower operator interrupted me as I admired my work: “Four-eight Foxtrot, it’s time to turn base leg! You’re flying a helicopter, not a B-52!” Oh sheesh, sure enough, I’d gone way beyond where I should have turned on my base leg. “Four-eight Foxtrot, roger,” I replied, trying not to sound overly sheepish. Then another voice came over the radio. It was Mr. White, chuckling as he offered, “For a minute there, I was afraid you were flying to Florida.” I turned base leg, then reported turning final. It was time to land.

Suddenly, I forgot how to fly. The nose pitched up, then down, as if the helicopter were flying itself. I was getting into what the instructors refered to as "P.I.O.": pilot-induced oscillation. Over the radio, Mr. White’s calm voice again: “Just fly it like you always fly it.” As if by magic, I found that I was again flying the helicopter, instead of the helicopter flying me. I terminated the approach to a hover, then called the tower for takeoff clearance. In the next two traffic patterns, I made a triumphant emotional transition, from muted terror to, well, severe anxiety. On my last approach, Mr. White transmitted, “Okay, Four-eight Foxtrot, hover over here and pick me up.”

Mr. White climbed in, donned his flight helmet, and stuck out his hand in congratulations. “Not bad, other than that first traffic pattern. Mind if I fly us home?” (The “home field” was about fifteen miles from our stage field.) Not only did I not mind, I was relieved. Although exhilarated, I felt utterly spent.

That was thirty years ago today. Wow. And yes, it does seem, at times, like it all happened a few years ago, not three decades ago. And yes, that eighteen year-old is still there: he often sees me in the mirror and says, “Sheesh, man, what happened to you?”

I have 10,000 hours of flight time now, but I doubt I’ll ever forget the way I felt on that day, the day I survived my first solo.

"The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you’ve been." Madeleine L'Engle